One year ago this month, the best iPhone app for finding out what’s happening around the world, fast, launched to the public. Breaking News Online (BNO), the incredible team lead by Dutch then-teenager Michael van Poppel and funded by revenue from van Poppel’s bizzarre sale of an Osama Bin Laden video to mainstream media outlets, built the sophisticated app to deliver push-notification alerts of breaking news with Iowa based development shop BitMethod.
The app was a favorite of news-junkies and reporters around the world. Even members of the RedCross said they used it to find out about natural disasters before any other channel alerted them. Then in November, Breaking News announced that it had sold control over its wildly popular Twitter account to MSNBC. Today the organization announced that its iPhone app will be shuttered. BNO will now sell access to its news exclusively to the corporate media clients it had originally disrupted with its innovative nearly-free service to consumers.
BNO, as the organization is often called, performed a mysterious but powerful mix of news aggregation and original reporting. It was the kind of thing that many young news geeks dream of – finding the most important news online and delivering it to the world faster than anyone else.
It was a beautiful thing. I’ll always remember the day I was eating lunch with a friend and got a push notification sent to my phone by BNO reporting that Bill Clinton had freed web journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee from captivity in North Korea. We both celebrated and I was thankful for finding out right away.
The app pushed a much higher volume of updates out than other news apps do, but also allowed what was when it launched a novel degree of granularity: users could determine which categories of news they wanted pushed to them and between what hours of the day.
When BNO sold control of its popular Twitter account to MSNBC, the difference was immediate and for serious news-hounds, disappointing. It felt less personal, there was no MSNBC branding on the Twitter account, but a substantial number of the links posted went to that company’s site. It was still pretty cool, but not nearly as cool as the independent organization that it had been before.
There was still the iPhone app, but its sales dropped substantially once it was no longer promoted on Twitter. BNO began making deals with other news organizations to provide them with feeds of breaking news that the ultra-lightweight international team consistently finds before anyone else.
Then this week, it abruptly came to an end. “The BNO News app is over. A PR is expected later today,” BNO EVP Rodrigo Javier Aguiar said on Twitter last weekend. It wasn’t until today that the company issued a press release. Van Poppel explained:
“As our wire services are growing, our content is expanding, and our company is quickly expanding, we want to give our clients the full advantage by only offering services directly to them. Unfortunately, only offering services to our clients also means we have decided to end our iPhone services.”
What that means is this: BNO changed the media by proving that a tiny distributed team of talented young journalists could beat the world at breaking news around the clock. Then the world’s media began giving BNO money for a piece of the action. Now the media establishment will no longer be challenged from the outside by an independent source, because Van Poppel’s team will no longer compete with it. “We want to give our clients the full advantage,” he wrote. And with that full advantage will come the discretion regarding which of the news updates will be published, how many of them and how fast. The media landscape returns to normal, it just may be a little faster, and van Poppel and his team have reputable, if unusual, jobs now.
So much for disruption. Everybody’s got a right to make a living.
The app has already been pulled from iTunes and Bitmethod, the contractors that built it, will soon send out shut-down notifications to app buyers. That company says it may offer refunds to people who bought the app in the last few months. Bitmethod offered enthusiastic and supportive statements, but frankly – I’m bummed.
I wish I could see inside that news room, and get some idea how they break so much news first. I don’t think any of us are likely to learn such things now.